Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Identifying a sitter painted by William Wood (1769-1810)

This miniature by William Wood was purchased with the name of the sitter unknown

The only identification we had was the initial 'B' on the reverse

William Wood was very methodical in keeping records of his work and with a little bit of detective work it is sometimes possible to identify an unknown sitter

All images of William Woods records are
the copyright of V & A Museum London

The V & A Museum have five volumes of William Wood's records
 of which three list his portrait miniatures.

Wood, for some reason, numbered his miniatures starting at 5000
He had coded numbers for the different colours used on each miniature and also a chart for the different sizes of ivory ovals. Sometimes he made a tracing of the subject's profile. 
When a miniature was returned for repair he would have a complete record of  it.

We know our miniature is a man in a blue coat with the initial 'B' and 3 inches in height and from this we have the following possibilities.

Miniature number 5431. 'Mr Bruce of Sloane Street, in a blue coat, little powder in the hair -Thomas B
6th size being 3" finished 9th July 1796'

This is a possibility as it was painted around the right year and mentions the blue coat and powdered hair.

5483 'Mr Belcher of - in a blue coat - dark clear complexion
Finished 24th March 1797. 
Wood changed the coding of his sizes and 3 inches
 became between 1st and 2nd size!!

This is also a possibility, although it is debatable that the sitter's complexion could be described as dark.

5715 'Mr Bateman of Bunhill Row. Finished 16th Nov 1799.
Delivered same day. Dirty complexion. Blue coat of 141.
Ivory glass papered and washed.. Touches of 148 on eyes.
25 white. Mixed madder reds? Dark parts of 261. Not breathed on.'

Together with outline of coat similar to our miniature.
This is probably the most unlikely, as the tracing does not match the finished miniature in its positioning of the arm and shoulder and the cut of  the collar of the coat.  The sitter's complexion is even, so unlikely this could be the man with a 'dirty' complexion.

Finally Number 5754. 'Mr Byles of Halifax.
Began 25th Mar 1800 Finished 8th April. Delivered 10th.
Bilious complexion. 25 white. Mixed reds as usual.
Breathed on. Very slight touches of 148. Blue coat
of 141. Faint blue of 213 in background.
The ivory is scraped then rubbed with pumice.
Afterwards washed off.
In Sept. 1803 I found it had acquired some mildew while in the West Indies. 
And chiefly on those parts touched with 148 : perhaps breathing might be injurious!

This possibility is also unlikely because the Mr. Byles described here  has a bilious complexion and was not painted until 1800 and the miniature in question reflects a fashion previous to this date.

When Wood talks of 'breathed on' he is recording whether he breathed on the watercolour while painting to keep it moist while applying more colour.

So the possible sitters are:
 Mr Bruce 1796, Mr Belcher 1797,  Mr Bateman 1799 or Mr Byles 1800.

Taking all the details into consideration, we would consider that 'Mr. Bruce of Sloane Street'
 is the most likely candidate. Any comments would be appreciated.


  1. Fascinating. I actually had the same wonderful experience when I discovered the identity of Col.Dick Burnaby - one of Daphne's favourite miniatures. I 'found' the miniature many years ago in a small antique shop in Petersfield and with the help of Richard Allen ( who proposed my research at the V&A)found out all about him. I sold it to Maurice Asprey soon after. I had always thought that he ( Wood ) refrained from breathing on the ivories because, as we all know, even a warm breath can make them curl.

  2. Thank you for this lovely story. We knew Richard, who was so enthusiastic when studying miniatures.
    You are right about humidity curling ivory. We use a controlled humidity method to curl the ivory back and forth to 'relax' it as a first stage to re-flatten a curled miniature.